For 26 years, just after Thanksgiving, Dennis Balcom would sit down to have his dark-brown hair and beard bleached and dyed white.
The reason was simple. That way, if children asked him if he were the real Santa Claus, he could respond “What do you think?” and invite them to tug on his beard and peak under his Santa cap.
The stout Balcom no longer bothers to dye his hair and beard. There’s no need. His hair turned white in 2012, making him a naturally convincing Santa during the off-season as well as when he dons his Santa suit for Bellingham Fairhaven Lions Club and talks to children and poses for pictures in the toy department at Yeager’s Sporting Goods.
A 60-year-old retired purchasing agent, Balcom first played Santa when he was 12 years old during his sixth-grade school play in Seattle. Clearly, that was just the beginning. He has portrayed Santa in Bellingham for the past 32 years, including 30 consecutive years for the Fairhaven Lions. Simply put, he does it because he loves it.
“I get a real joy helping children create some nice, long-term memories,” he said. “Santa Claus brings out the joy in everybody.”
Balcom has portrayed Santa for so long that he now is greeting children whose parents sat on his lap when they were young.
Balcom moved to Deming in 1994 but used to live in Bellingham, where he became active with the Lions Club. He began playing Santa in Bellingham in 1983, making appearances downtown. His brother, Lyle, a professional clown who went by “Blumbo the Clown,” would entertain people while they waited in line to visit with Santa.
The following year, Balcom was Santa for a few home visits and portrayed Frosty the snowman at Bellingham Mall, where the Sehome Haggen is now located.
He began playing Santa for the Fairhaven Lions in 1985 and hasn’t stopped despite holiday moves to various locations, from Bellingham Mall to the Children’s Company (where REI is now located) to Kmart and, since 2001, to Yeager’s.
He also played Santa for many years for the Lake Whatcom Railway in Wickersham, starting in 1989 and retiring last year.
During those many moves, Balcom maintained a steady approach to his Santa interactions with children. He spends minimal time talking about what they want for gifts. Instead, he encourages them to discuss things going on in their lives. Their age. Their pets. Can they count their age? Can they count backward from their age? Can they sing their ABCs?
“I try to make it more of a sharing of what’s going on in their lives,” Balcom said.
If kids ask how he delivers gifts around the world, he might answer “Santa magic.”
“I don’t try to explain it,” he said. “I try to leave it to their own imagination.”
With so many Santa visits over the years, Balcom has stories galore to share, from the young boy who asked Santa to cure his sister’s cancer, to the young man who proposed to his girlfriend while they were both in Santa’s sleigh. Balcom was in on the plan; the man had given him a a small sack of coal to give to the girlfriend. Balcom did, and when the woman saw the engagement ring dangling from the bag’s strings, she knew the proposal was for real.
Balcom’s low-key, family-friendly approach mirrors the Fairhaven Lions’ philosophy about visits and photos with Santa. Sit-down time with Santa is free and isn’t rushed. People who can’t afford to purchase a professional photo from the Lions can use their own camera to capture the moment.
“They understand that it’s a traditional family experience,” Balcom said.
Proceeds from the photographs and donations support Fairhaven Lions programs, including eyeglasses and hearing aids for the needy, and Lions Camp Horizon for campers with special needs.
Balcom isn’t the only Santa with the Fairhaven Lions, but he puts in the most hours, by far.
“I’ll do it as long as I can,” he said.